The news source Al Jazeera America recently ran an article (of which there have been counterparts in a number of journals) that Americans, especially younger adults, are becoming less religious. I’m willing to challenge that. The sources note that there is less and less participation in religious institutions, and that a considerable number have forsaken their belief in God.

At the same time there are all of the evidences of a common human quest after meaning, justice, relationships, and spirituality are very much there, and intense. These all point to some sense of curiosity about this haunted universe in which we live. There are those needs, common to all humankind, of: 1) a center, 2) an authority, 3) a creative source, 4) a guiding line, and 5) a final goal. These often reside in the hidden depths of one’s sub-consciousness … but are inescapably there.

For centuries, the Christian faith was captive to the church institutions, what with their clergy, sanctuaries, hierarchical authorities, and traditions. But as modernity has diminished these, and the challenges of post-modernity has emerged full-blown to become the dominant cultural climate, the traditional institutional structures of Christendom have struggled to survive … but have often done so at a huge price—they have diminished their focus on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, and have replaced them with comfortable church activities that give an appearance of religion, but miss the essence. Or to use the Biblical illustration: the comfortable church communities have left Christ outside the door.

But … those common human longings for meaning, acceptance, and hope remain. Young adults may profess to be irreligious, and may find the church to be a dry well, but that doesn’t mean that they are irreligious. They keep questing after ‘spirituality’ in odd forms, or in different kinds of settings/communities.

Face it: the teachings of Jesus are quite radical, and require a forsaking of the autonomous self in favor of an alternative narrative that speaks to the (above) need for a center, an authority, a creative source, a guiding line, and a final goal. Jesus’ teachings speak to the deepest longings, the deepest hungerings and thirstings of the human heart. And when institutional Christianity substitutes ‘churchy’ activities, and comfortable religion for that radical message, then the church ceases to be a faithful incarnation of God’s design (ceases to be a church?) to set us free and to make all things new in Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of institutional Christianity as a counterfeit that heralded a “cheap grace,” i.e., a religion that made no radical requirements and produced no light or leaven in society (he was coping with the tragedy of the ostensible Christian church in Nazi Germany in the 1930s). Or perhaps I need to retrieve the quote by the Christian novelist who said that her literary colleagues were not willing to discuss the Christian faith with her because: “Christianity is too wild and free for the timid.”

Add to that the current spectacle of presidential candidates who, in seeking support make claims to be Christian, or religious, and yet seem to be totally and embarrassingly unfamiliar with the teachings of Jesus, or of the Jewish community, or of scriptures—its embarrassing, even scandalous, and would be a ‘turn-off’ to any thoughtful young person on a spiritual quest. Then there are all of the sex scandals that seem to inhabit the church, such as the revelation of sexual exploitation of youth by priests (not mention the church’s often clumsy dealing with the LBGT issue). These would make any thoughtful person discount that kind of religion as an answer to their quest.

But all of this does not make younger Americans irreligious. It only means that they are looking for authenticity of religious profession. And though they are forsaking institutional Christianity … they are not thereby irreligious, just disillusioned. They might want to take a thoughtful and leisurely read through the New Testament document!

About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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